WASHINGTON - For six inmates serving time in Louisiana, fears about the COVID-19 pandemic spreading within the prison population has prompted them to plead with the outside world for helping in securing their release. They are also suing the Bureau of Prisons in order to press their case for home confinement.
Five of the prisoners suffer from myriad illnesses and health conditions that make them highly vulnerable to the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.
One of them, Brandon Livas, 35, is diabetic and suffers from acute pancreatitis.
Another, Richard Buswell, 51, has asthma, hypertension and sleep apnea.
Two weeks after they and others asked a federal judge in Louisiana to order them to home confinement during the pandemic, the six inmates remain behind bars in the Oakdale prison, where seven inmates have died of the virus in recent weeks.
The sight of dead and ill prisoners inside the facility is prompting the prisoners to send out desperate pleas for help.
“We're receiving text messages and emails and phone calls from family saying, ‘We think we're next,’ ” said Somil Trivedi, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the class action lawsuit on behalf of the inmates. “They feel like they’re sitting ducks.”
Trivedi shared with VOA messages he and other lawyers have received from inmates. In one, which Trivedi said he received on Thursday, an inmate wrote about hearing about the latest death at Oakdale.
“This is very scary and it’s sad,” the inmate wrote. “Like we just [are] waiting [for] our turn to die.”
Trivedi asked that the prisoner’s name be withheld to protect him from retaliation for speaking to lawyers.
In his text message, the inmate wrote that he has a wife and children “who need me there.”
“What it’s going to take for them to let us go?” he wrote. “Another seven to die?”
The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on the federal prison system, infecting hundreds of prisoners and guards and prompting officials to place inmates on home confinement. As of Thursday, 473 federal inmates and 279 staff members had tested positive for the virus, according to the Bureau of Prisons.
There are more than 170,000 inmates in the federal prison system. The Bureau of Prisons says it has taken “numerous steps” to contain the coronavirus at its 122 facilities.
All facilities have been on lockdown since April 1. Health workers take the inmates’ temperatures at least once a day. Inmates exhibiting symptoms are isolated while those suspected of exposure to the virus are quarantined.
The agency says it is reviewing all at-risk prisoners for possible home confinement and has sent nearly 1,200 inmates home since late March.
On March 26, Attorney General William Barr, concerned about coronavirus outbreaks inside federal prisons, ordered the Bureau of Prisons to increase its use of home confinement for sick and old inmates. That initially led to the home confinement of about 500 inmates. In a subsequent memo on April 3, Barr directed the immediate release of all medically at-risk prisoners, beginning with inmates held at Oakdale and two other facilities.
“An amazing undertaking under the best of circumstances, and these are far from the best,” the Bureau of Prisons tweeted Wednesday.
Among federal prisoners slated for release is Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer. Cohen is serving a three-year sentence at a federal prison in New York where 14 inmates and seven employees have tested positive for COVID-19, the sickness caused by the coronavirus. Cohen will be sent home after a 14-day quarantine.
Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who is serving time in a federal prison in Pennsylvania, has also asked to be sent home to serve the remainder of his sentence for bank and tax fraud and other crimes. No coronavirus cases have been reported at that facility.
Oakdale has been one of the prisons hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Of the 18 federal prisoners who have died of the COVID-19 disease, seven were housed at Oakdale.
“It’s a human rights crisis,” Trivedi said.
The ACLU class action lawsuit in Louisiana is one of two it has filed against the Bureau of Prisons in recent weeks. In Ohio, the civil liberties group and a local legal aid organization this week filed a lawsuit on behalf of 2,400 inmates housed at a federal facility in the state. Three people have died and scores of others have fallen ill to the coronavirus at the prison.
The ACLU wants all inmates at risk of contracting the coronavirus released immediately, arguing that social distancing is impractical inside the confines of overcrowded correctional facilities.
Oakdale houses nearly 2,000 inmates. The lawsuit demands the release of nearly 750 vulnerable inmates.
At one Oakdale facility, “there are eight working sinks, eight dirty toilets, and ‘five or six’ working showers for approximately 125 men,” according to one inmate cited in the lawsuit.
In Ohio, one of the inmates represented by the ACLU is Craig Wilson, 42, who suffers from asthma and relies on inhalers, steroids and breathing machines to breathe.
“I feel like I’ve been handed a death sentence,” Wilson is quoted as saying in the lawsuit.
The ACLU says five inmates died at Oakdale between Barr’s first directive in March and early April when it sued the Bureau of Prisons.
Despite Barr’s directive, BOP officials have been dragging their feet, advocates say.
“Astonishingly, at the place that has the most deaths in the whole BOP system, they can't confirm anybody who's been moved to home confinement,” Trivedi said.
Asked about the ACLU claim, the Bureau of Prisons said in a statement to VOA that given the fluid situation, it is "not breaking down the number [of home-confined inmates] by institution."
The coronavirus outbreaks inside U.S. prisons, often at much higher rates than in their surroundings, have prompted local and state jail officials to release thousands of nonviolent inmates in recent weeks.
Around the world, governments, concerned that prisons could turn into cesspools of infections, have released low-level offenders. Iran has released more than 100,000 prisoners.
“I think it's fairly clear that we lag other countries in doing what we need to do,” Trivedi said.
Federal law enforcement officials have cautioned against the wholesale release of prisoners. The BOP says that more than 40% of the federal inmates older than 60 have been convicted of violent crimes or sex offenses.
“The last thing our massively overburdened police forces need right now is the indiscriminate release of thousands of prisoners onto the streets without any verification that those prisoners will follow the laws when they are released,” Barr wrote in his April 3 memo.
Still, conditions at federal prisons have grown dire enough to get the Justice Department watchdog’s attention. The DOJ inspector general’s office said this week that it was conducting “a series of remote inspections” of federal prisons to ensure they’re complying with best practices during the pandemic.